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Former ‘SNL’ Actor Reveals How a Diagnosis of ‘Mental Injury’ Helped Him Heal From Childhood Trauma

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Update: On Monday, Variety reported “Cracked Up” will be released in theaters starting Sept. 13.

Former “Saturday Night Live” actor Darrell Hammond is the subject of a new documentary on healing from childhood abuse titled “Cracked Up.” Hammond, who is famous for impersonating everyone from Bill Clinton to Regis Philbin, Sean Connery and more than 100 other characters during his 14 seasons on the show, revealed he struggled with his mental health for decades. It wasn’t until a doctor diagnosed him with a “mental injury” that Hammond began to heal.

Hammond lived with debilitating flashbacks, addiction and self-harm. According to the “Cracked Up” website, he was “once was taken out of SNL in a straight jacket.” Despite his symptoms, for 40 years he was misdiagnosed and tried many medications that didn’t work.

Following a suicide attempt, Hammond found a doctor, Nabil Kotbi, M.D., who finally understood what was going on. Hammond’s symptoms were due to repressed memories from childhood trauma. Instead of framing Hammond’s symptoms as there being something “wrong” with him, Kotbi took a different approach, which made all the difference.

“I became sold on the idea that the way I was behaving was best described as a mental injury rather than a mental illness,” Hammond told the New York Post. “That’s the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus of my whole life.”

Referring to the effects of childhood trauma as a “mental injury” makes sense from a scientific perspective. Trauma doesn’t just impact your mental health, but also your physical health. The body reacts by activating its fight-flight-freeze response during traumatic situations. When that activation isn’t resolved or gets stuck in the “on” position, it results in symptoms like flashbacks, suicidal ideation, self-harm, depression and anxiety that can last years after the danger has passed.

Trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk, M.D., who is also featured in “Cracked Up,” described this in his book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. He wrote:

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.

In “Cracked Up,” which was created with documentary filmmaker Michelle Esrick, Hammond expands on his journey to wellness and how the idea of a “mental injury” helped him make sense of his past and his mental health symptoms. It was important to learn the abuse wasn’t his fault.

“I literally believed I deserved it because I was bad and it was my fault,” Hammond told the Post. “That was the only way I could reconcile with the fact that this was happening by one of my parents. It was easier to believe that … than to believe I wasn’t loved.”

“Cracked Up” is based on Hammond’s 2011 memoir, “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked.” The film will also feature interviews with longtime “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Hammond and Esrick hope “Cracked Up” will break down the stigma of how we think about the symptoms caused by childhood trauma.

“Like Darrell says, ‘If you got hit by a car you wouldn’t be ashamed or if you broke your leg you wouldn’t be ashamed,’” Esrick told Variety. “But somehow if you have things you can’t explain, anxiety, depression, alcoholism, addictions you feel ashamed. It’s Darrell’s story, but it’s a bigger story that we both wanted to tell.”

“Cracked Up” premieres Wednesday at the DOC NYC Film Festival.

Header image via Twitter.

Originally published: November 14, 2018
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